Across the football field, a female student delivered the Christian invocation. Here beyond the end zone, the Union County High players in black-and-yellow uniforms bowed their heads. As the girl spoke, Union County’s coach quietly pushed up his sleeves, revealing a black arm band with his plays on it. On the back of the arm band was “COACH T,” in white marker
The invocation ended, and the coach strode toward his players, a tin of Skoal chewing tobacco in the left back pocket of his khaki pants, a laminated and highlighted play sheet in the right, with “Victory” written on it. Steve Taneyhill would accept nothing less last Friday night, deep into the second act of a football life that, 20 years ago, made him forever famous in South Carolina. Taneyhill stepped into the shadows, under the green canopy tents borrowed from Holcombe Funeral Home. His players fell silent.
“It’s been an up-and-down year, but tonight’s the night,” he told them. “You’ve got to win tonight. There’s pressure. Play your (butt) off for each other tonight, guys. You’ll remember this night forever when you win.”
Taneyhill’s Yellow Jackets needed to beat Chester in the regular season finale to guarantee a spot in the Class AAA state playoffs. They were 5-4, with one winning streak, of two games, in Taneyhill’s first year. They last won a state championship in 2002, their third in four years.
In 12 seasons as a head coach, at two South Carolina high schools, Taneyhill came to Union County with a 120-34 record and five state titles, including 2007-09 at Chesterfield, where he spent the previous seven seasons.
Taneyhill, 39, has won far more as a coach than he did as the University of South Carolina’s quarterback from 1992-95, when USC had just one winning season.
But he became a state-wide celebrity because of how boldly he won in 1992, while leading USC to a 5-1 finish as a true freshman, in the Gamecocks’ first Southeastern Conference season. Fans modeled hats after his mullet haircut. He capped the season with a 24-13 victory at Clemson by pretending to autograph the Tigers’ paw logo at midfield.
Twenty years later, he is a tad pudgier and his hair is short in the back and thinning on top. He is single and without children. He prefers to spend his free Saturdays in the woods, hunting turkey or deer with friends, because “it’s peaceful.” In Columbia, many people still recognize him.
“It gets to you,” he said. “You can’t go anywhere. There’s no normalcy. It’s not that fun all the time.”
But he doesn’t regret drawing attention to himself as a younger man, because “I’m me.” Still, he said, “If someone asks me now, I say I’m just a football coach.”
Though Taneyhill ditched some of his flash, he remains a demonstrative and unapologetic competitor.
Nobody sees that clearer than Ryan Young, Taneyhill’s offensive line coach. Young, 35, has coached under Taneyhill since he was at Cambridge Academy in Greenwood from 1998 to 2002.
Young grew up in Columbia, and his family so lionized Taneyhill that the iconic image of him hung in Young’s house – Taneyhill, photographed from behind, arms raised in a “V,” during that rainy and seminal game at Clemson in 1992. (Taneyhill keeps the photo framed in his office.)
Young saw another side of Taneyhill after a Cambridge game in which the offensive line struggled. Taneyhill ripped into Young for the line’s issues. Other assistants saw Taneyhill’s demanding side during practice, when “he’d call us out in front of players,” Young said.
Young chafed at the criticism and wondered, “Why is this guy always on me? Why is he harping on every little thing?” But Taneyhill took time to teach Young how to study film, and even gave him tests. Taneyhill exposing Young’s mistakes in those early sessions was “awful,” Young said, but, “he wouldn’t let me accept less than perfection.”
In March, Taneyhill took over a Union County program that was anything but. The Yellow Jackets went 19-17 the past three seasons, including 4-7 last year.
“We’ve been down for a while and trying to get back to where we want to be as a football town,” said Jay Voiselle, Taneyhill’s freshman team coach and a Union native.
To that end, on a bulletin board outside Taneyhill’s office, is quote from the 1700s English author Samuel Johnson: “Clear your mind of CAN’T.”
Union, an old textile city 70 miles northwest of Columbia, saw its population shrink with mill closings, from 10,500 in 1980 to about 8,300 now. Stately 1800s-era homes along Main Street dwarf rundown houses nearby. Parking for football games at the off-campus stadium is in front of a shuttered Winn-Dixie, its space unoccupied.
Just outside downtown is the hulking, brick Monarch Mill, 112 years old, closed since 2010. Across the street, a sign in front of Bethel United Methodist Church reads: “In God we still trust.”
Union County lifers like Eddie Kelly still endure. Kelly, 68, worked at a now-closed sweater mill near Union and now drives 64 miles roundtrip every day to work as a knitting machine mechanic at a factory in Spartanburg. He refuses to buy foreign-made clothes, so he shops online.
A regular at Yellow Jackets games, he sat last Friday on a bench at Union County Stadium, his white hair slicked back neatly, and pondered a perceived change he is happy to embrace — that of the Yellow Jackets’ new football coach.
“In my time, we didn’t care about long hair on boys,” Kelly said. “He’s grown up now. He ain’t the same as he was when he played.”
Taneyhill neither looks nor acts exactly the same as he did in college, but he did not become a wallflower over the past 20 years. In July, local country music singer Patrick Davis performed his USC football-themed song at a Columbia bar. “And I’ve seen that photograph of young Steve Taneyhill,” Davis sang. “Up in old Death Valley, signing his name on the field.” Several former players joined Davis on stage, including Taneyhill. When Davis sang Taneyhill’s lyric, Taneyhill turned his back on the crowd and raised his arms, evoking the image of that brash freshman quarterback.
As Taneyhill sat in his office before Friday’s game, he said his coaching approach differs from his playing style because, “You can’t always show as much emotion as I did as a player.” But, he added, “I don’t really have a problem with cocky. I don’t know any other way. I don’t know that I’m buddies with a lot of high school coaches. On Fridays, they’re the enemy.”
At USC, he admitted, “I was a tough player to coach,” because of stubbornness. He still enjoys being in control. He calls his own plays and doesn’t use a written playbook, because he is concerned about an assistant leaving and using it elsewhere.
He likes watching college and NFL games and scribbling down ideas, but he can’t envision himself as a college assistant because he doesn’t like the lack of job security and enjoys his offseason free time and getting to “do whatever I want.” He has spent one season, ever, as an assistant, in 2004, as West Ashley’s offensive coordinator.
“It was so tough for me,” he said. “You have to fall in line.”
That, he believes, is his players’ duty.
He is particularly hard on his senior quarterback, Keiston Smith. In the preseason, Taneyhill tested Smith by calling a play he wouldn’t normally call, “to see how he’d react.”
When Taneyhill walked into the school cafeteria for Friday’s pregame meal of sub sandwiches, every player immediately fell silent — a change from earlier this season.
“That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” Taneyhill said later.
The kickoff tumbled through the crisp autumn night, and Taneyhill was off, a tornado of emotion on the sideline. He frantically signaled plays to Smith. He moaned about his team’s recurring holding penalties: “So undisciplined!”
With 25 seconds left in the first half, Smith dropped back to throw. Taneyhill screamed to him, alerting him of an open receiver, Kalay Jones. Smith found Jones for a 27-yard touchdown. As Smith jogged off the field, Taneyhill smiled for one of the few times all night and playfully forearmed Smith’s chest. “You see him the whole time or you hear me?” Taneyhill asked.
Union County led 20-13 at halftime, but Taneyhill steamed about allowing a long punt return late in the half that led to no points. Taneyhill saw one of his players loaf on the play. “You’re done!” he screamed at the kid. “You’ll never play here! You jogged the whole way!”
He calmed at halftime. He stuffed chewing tobacco into his lower lip. He told his team, “Twenty-four more minutes, guys.”
The Yellow Jackets led 26-19 with 7:16 left in the third quarter. Then they unraveled. They allowed a 96-yard kickoff return touchdown. They committed personal fouls, a problem all year. They held on third and 1, and Taneyhill went nuts. “Y’all don’t want to win,” he shouted. “You want to turn your (stuff) in.” He spiked his headset. A fan yelled, “Taneyhill, you suck!”
The Yellow Jackets lost 42-26, but still made the playoffs, as Taneyhill learned right after the game. (They travel to Wren in Anderson County on Friday.)
He told his players they would play on. He didn’t yell, and instead said, “If you want to win big games, you have to play the entire 48 minutes.” After he broke the huddle, he chuckled about the heckling fan and recapped the game with his assistants and the county’s sheriff, David Taylor, who wore a Union County High polo shirt, and his pistol and badge on the hip of his jeans.
“We should have played harder,” Taneyhill said, more to himself than anyone around him.
Most frustrating for Taneyhill, a player bolted the sideline immediately after the game ended — the third to do that in two games. He’d be suspended, if he wanted to stick on the team at all. As Taneyhill walked off the field, he said, “We’re just not very good.”
Change takes time, he knows, and he had to get back to it late Friday night. The stadium emptied and the bus rumbled, filled with kids waiting to learn to accept nothing less than victory.